Movie Review By: Bryan Fox / Blogger

A far-reaching film that begins with an ending and ends on a sun-bleached hillside at the far end of the world, Desierto Sur is nothing if not a journey. Young Sofia (Marta Etura) wins a swimming competition in Barcelona as her mother expires in a hospital. At the bedside of the deceased, and later, in her home, she laments to herself and those around her “I can’t cry.”

Scenes of despair follow. A kindly but distant father, who seems more avuncular than paternal. A boyfriend, who calls repeatedly but can’t ease her pain. A swim team that turns quickly on her when she announces her desire to quit. And a mysterious envelope returned undelivered, sent originally to a town somewhere in the Chilean desert that the postman couldn’t find. The envelope contains a love letter from her late mother to a man. And thus Sofia’s journey begins.

Desierto Sur jets us out of Barcelona before we can appreciate the cosmopolitan beauty of that city, but leaves us ample time in Chile to enjoy its rugged splendor. Though divested of her purse by an opportunistic street thief shortly after her arrival, Sofia sets out from Santiago in search of clues leading to a town it seems no one has heard of.

There’s nothing like a long, dusty bus ride down a South American highway to afford one time to ponder one’s place in the cosmos, and Sofia stares out the window as she watches the sand roll by, lost in contemplation. Plagued by dreams of drowning now, she encounters Nadia (Carolina Varleta, a kinetic presence in the film), a street performer/vagabond/inveterate liar, who has stowed herself away underneath the bus in an effort to return to Copiapo and her mother. The two girls strike up an uneasy friendship, Nadia alternately stealing Sofia’s things, robbing a house she claims is that of her parents upon arrival to Copiapo, and inventing a map she says points the way to the eponymous city in the sands, among her other indiscretions.

Along the way, the girls hitch a ride with Gustavo (Alejandro Botto), a gangly, sun-browned Argentine who shows Sofia kindness and affection, and soon we learn that he is carrying more than just two jovenes with him in the back of his jeep. Sofia falls for him, but runs off into the desert when she learns the dark truth about his day job. He wins her back, but neither he nor Nadia will ultimately accompany Sofia to the final stage of her journey. In an unexpected but quite plausible plot twist, the ground drops out from under the three wanderers in a flash of misfortune, and when it does, it is a gut punch that momentarily takes the wind out of the viewer as well. But still Sofia remains steadfast in her quest, following it through to completion, undaunted by all obstacles sent her way.

Desierto Sur is the rare film where no one is a bad guy, and the sympathy we feel for each of our characters is genuine, because not a one of them is begging for it. Etura and Varleta have an easy chemistry, the latter a mercurial sprite who vacillates and cachinnates and seems as likely to turn on her new friend at one moment as to die for her at the next. Varveta told me she saw her character as a stray dog, looking for affection where she could find it, and this description seems apt, as Nadia continually nips at Sofia’s heels with playful antagonism, until the Spaniard turns and waves a stick at her, sending her cowering into a corner from which she quickly emerges time and time again.

During one especially moving scene, Sofia and Nadia finally verify their friendship, and the sniffles of the two girls sitting on a bed were not the only ones audible in the theatre. (By the end of the film, Sofia’s tear ducts will have been wrung dry several times over, and, if the audience on hand for this screening was any indication, she won’t be weeping alone.)

The raw, blanched landscapes lend superbly to wide-angle driving sequences set to an instrumental soundtrack and the desert, at times, acts more like a character and a plot device than just a background. The sand and the hills make tangible the

divide between the protagonist and all she’s left behind, everything she thought she knew. At one point, the desert sucks Gustavo’s jeep into its clutches, and later wraps its dusty arms around Sofia, dragging her down as well. Its pristine waters, part oasis, part mirage, unfold into dream sequences, Sofia and her mother alternately walking across and swimming within aquamarine pools of unresolved emotion. The stark beauty of the Chilean countryside makes for almost too-easily emotive nature shots, but, to their credit, the cinematographers do not abuse the gift they have been given.

Desierto Sur is a sprawling road film that moves just fast enough to keep things interesting, yet just slow enough to draw you in. A tightly-scripted work, rife with emotion, but at no point begging you to feel it. The rare movie that says exactly what it needs to, and precious little more. Emotionally draining, but never pithy. In sum, it’s everything a road movie needs to be.

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